The icy continent is reserved for scientists from around the world to study the history of the Earth and the effects of climate change in a remote area unspoilt by human activity. But experts now fear Moscow is turning its attention to the region, which has been protected by the Antarctic Treaty System for more than 60 years. The global pact sets aside the frozen desert as a scientific haven, bans military activity on the continent and suspends eight territorial claims to the region, including Britain’s – which is disputed by Chile and Argentina.
But historian and author of ‘The Historiography of the First Russian Antarctic Expedition,’ Rip Bulkeley, detailed why it could be a source of tension in the future.
He told Express.co.uk: “At the time of the treaty, all territorial claims in Antarctica were frozen.
“Neither the USA nor the Soviet Union had made such a claim, both however reserved their rights to do so in the future. Neither has made a formal claim to date.
“But unlike all other parties to the Treaty, Russia now shows disturbing signs of being ready to make a claim, if not to some specific part of the continent, then to a disproportionately large share of mineral and other resources as climate change makes them increasingly accessible.
“While officials are willing to voice support for the Treaty as they interpret it, they never mention, let alone support, the Protocol on Environmental Protection which is now the cornerstone of the Antarctic Treaty System.”
In recent months Australia, the UK and the US have all significantly reduced their presence in Antarctica due to the pandemic.
Not only could the cutbacks delay important research on rising sea levels and the effects of global warming, but they also leave the door open for potential conflict on the protocol.
Russian researchers continue to work on the continent and are reportedly pushing their luck for more access to fisheries, oil reserves, and mining.
Even before the pandemic, experts warned that this scientific research could be to further their claims on the continent and also exploit its minerals.
In 2048, several elements of the Antarctic Treaty will come up for contention but geopolitical expert Professor Klaus Dodds previously told Express.co.uk that a “grey area” of the treaty could see issues arising sooner.
He said: “Under the ‘Protocol on Environmental Protection’ mining is banned, but there has always been this grey area where what counts as geological research could look like mining.
“So you’ve always got this dual-use element of science – it’s brilliant for learning about things, but can also be used to evaluate what’s in certain environments.
“So there is anxiety over fishing first, then minerals later and you don’t need to invoke a date like 2048 to see the potential pressure points.
“What we are absolutely going to see is China and Russia becoming more and more assertive in both the Arctic and the Antarctic.